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Metabolic Syndrome: Symptoms, Causes and Tips for Support

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June 26, 2014 | Published by


Metabolic syndrome (also known as syndrome X and prediabetes) is a progressive disorder that can lead to heart disease, stroke and diabetes. With obesity on the rise, it is estimated that around 30% of the U.S. population has metabolic syndrome. This syndrome occurs when three of the following conditions are experienced concurrently:

  • High blood pressure
  • High fasting glucose
  • High levels of serum triglycerides (bad cholesterol)
  • Low HDL (the good cholesterol) levels
  • Weight gain in the stomach or abdominal area

Causes of Metabolic Syndrome

In addition to aging and genetic predisposition, many factors, such as daily consumption of foods high in sugar and fat combined with lack of exercise, can contribute to the development of metabolic syndrome. The pervasive stress of modern life is a powerful common denominator that, when added to these unhealthy lifestyles, accelerates their adverse effects on health and greatly increases the likelihood they will result in metabolic syndrome.

Modern Stress

The modern stress overload from economic, environmental, social and psychological factors can rarely be resolved by physical action. However, because human physiology has not changed much in the past 100,000 years, your stress response system is designed for the kind of physical threats to survival experienced by early man that required a physical “fight or flight” reaction. Every stress you experience, whether it’s a sleepless night or an overdue bill, triggers a chain reaction that prepares you to physically respond to the stressor. Without physical action in response to stress, these HPA axis-regulated adjustments can disrupt metabolic balance over time, as well as lower stress tolerance.

Stress, Cortisol and Insulin Resistance

The adrenal stress hormone cortisol is the primary instigator of the physiological changes that occur with stress, and in the process it interacts with other hormones like insulin. Cortisol and insulin work together to increase energy, but have opposite effects on blood sugar. Cortisol raises blood sugar by triggering the conversion of stored energy (glycogen) into glucose (blood sugar). Glucose is the source of energy used by most cells in the body.

Insulin helps move the glucose from the blood stream into the cells, thus lowering blood sugar. When cortisol goes up (as it does during stress), blood sugar goes up; and when blood sugar goes up, insulin does too. However, when insulin is high too often or for too long, the cells develop insulin resistance. This means they become less sensitive to the effects of insulin in order to protect themselves from the harmful effects of too much glucose.

With less glucose getting into the cells, the resulting elevated blood sugar triggers increased insulin, further aggravating insulin resistance. In addition, less glucose in the cells triggers hunger, which often translates into cravings for carbohydrates.

Both a diet high in refined carbohydrates and the elevated cortisol levels from frequent stress can produce a vicious cycle of insulin resistance. When chronic stress and poor diet combine with a sedentary lifestyle, they become an irresistible force driving the body, over time, towards metabolic syndrome and a variety of related health problems, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Weight Gain, Insulin Resistance and Stress

A prolonged cycle of stress and insulin resistance usually leads to weight gain, particularly belly fat. Although the reasons are not fully understood why this weight tends to accumulate in the chest and abdomen (visceral fat), several physiological mechanisms conspire to create this spare tire. Rising cortisol from stress increases blood sugar and causes hunger which may lead to overeating.

Both cortisol and insulin play complex roles in storing any excess energy (like blood glucose) as visceral fat to meet future needs. Compared to other fat cells, deep abdominal fat cells have greater blood flow, more cortisol receptors and higher levels of an enzyme that increase cortisol’s fat-storing activity within these cells.

All of these factors contribute to further belly fat accumulation. In addition, rising insulin inhibits fat burning hormones, like growth hormone, and signals the body not to release any stored fat. This chain reaction both encourages visceral weight gain and makes it more difficult to lose weight, especially when there is little physical activity.

Metabolic Syndrome Prevention and Support Tips

The three keys to managing metabolic balance are: maintaining a healthy weight; managing stress; and exercising regularly. Together these factors provide the best long-term solutions to moderating blood pressure and blood sugar, promoting normal fat and carbohydrate metabolism, and maintaining a healthy cardiovascular system.

Dietary Guidelines for Weight Management

Have small regular meals and chew well. Here are some tips on foods to include:

  • Low carb (low glycemic), unrefined foods
  • Oils high in Omega 3
  • White meat, fish, legumes, nuts and seeds
  • Plenty of vegetables (5-6 servings a day)
  • High potassium foods (most seeds, vegetables and fruit)

And foods to avoid:

  • Caffeine (stimulates cortisol)
  • Sugar and refined carbs (stimulates insulin)
  • Partially hydrogenated oils (disrupts healthy fat metabolism)
  • Reduce calories, fat and sodium

Lifestyle Tips for Stress Management

  • Eliminate as many sources of stress as you can
  • Limit contact with energy robbers (people, environments
    and activities that leave you feeling drained)
  • See the stressors you can’t get rid of in a more positive light
  • Laugh more
  • Make time to just relax (even if it’s only for 10 minutes a day)
  • Practice some simple breathing and meditation techniques daily
  • Don’t do anything else while eating (no TV, work, or texting)
  • Prioritize
  • Learn to say no

Exercise for Weight & Stress Management

Exercising 30-40 minutes a day helps normalize cortisol, insulin and blood sugar, and reduces belly fat. Combine the following:

  • Aerobic (vigorous walking, jogging, swimming,
    dancing, Zoomba)
  • Anaerobic (weights, isotonic, Pilates)
  • Flexibility (yoga, stretching, tai chi)

Dietary Supplements for Stress and Metabolic Balance

Having the right kind of supplemental support in addition to following the dietary, lifestyle and exercise guidelines described can significantly enhance your ability to handle stress and maintain metabolic balance. These supplements should:


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